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The Racine Theatre Guild is ready to dazzle live audiences once again with its 84th season. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, RTG had no choice but to forge new paths for presenting the arts. Never before had the Guild canceled a season. But as infection rates soared, the choice was clear: the health and safety of its volunteers and patrons was its highest priority. Season 83, having been announced on March 3, 2020, was canceled just 15 days later.

“You don’t really appreciate something until it’s been taken away from you,” said Artistic Director Doug Instenes in an interview. After 35 years of bringing quality theatre to people young and old alike, he found himself without an audience to enrich.

Never before had the popular performing arts phrase been more apt: “The show must go on.” Never before had they streamed to live-at-home audiences, but they did it. Never before had they been faced with casting, production, and rehearsals where social distancing and face coverings were mandatory, but they did it.

Doug Instenes, Artistic Director Credit: Michael Steinbach – Bach Photography
Cast and crew from Lost in Younkers, 2019 Credit: Michael Steinbach – Bach Photography
On Golden Pond, 2020 Credit: Michael Steinbach – Bach Photography
Grease, 2019 Credit: Michael Steinbach – Bach Photography
Fox in the Fairway, 2020 Credit: Michael Steinbach – Bach Photography

Pandemic-Proportioned Productions

RTG went virtual. Theatre classes were the first step along the virtual path. Kara Ernst-Schalk and Rob Kroes co-directed “The Show Must Go Online” in July 2020. From there, staff and volunteers alike readied themselves for a virtual main-stage production with the Signature Spotlight concert which aired in December.

Finances were tight throughout the year as they laid off staff members, hoping they would still be available when the time came to welcome them back to their paid positions. Unfortunately, they did lose one staff member. Chris Reinhardt, their former Technical Director (TD), was faced with the need to move on.

Jane Srnick, a seasoned veteran of the backstage, was hired in as the new TD. Srnick taught Technical Theatre for 33 years at Emerson Visual Performing Arts High School in Gary, IN before becoming an adjunct professor at Calumet College and Indiana University Northwest. Most recently she had been working as a Master Carpenter at Carthage College.

One of the greatest things to come out of last year’s upended season for Instenes was seeing the outpouring of loyalty and generosity from patrons. As the season was canceled and ticket prices were refunded, donations began rolling in. From the single show-goers to season ticket holders, people began donating some–or all–of their refunded tickets to the Guild. From $5 to $5,000, individuals just gave. Businesses also gave of their resources to help preserve this local treasure. Coupled with grant money, the donations kept RTG alive.

Where do we go from here?

After a colossal 635 days between MainStage performances, and with safety precautions solidly in place, RTG is back and ready to invite patrons into the House once again. With safety precautions solidly in place, thanks to the vigilance of a Covid Taskforce set in place by the Board of Directors, theatergoers can sit in the darkened auditorium and watch as the lights come up on another quality production at the Racine Theatre Guild.

“The real trick is coming out of it safely,” Instenes stated. By doing things right, they are hoping that another closure will never have to happen again. The Taskforce is compiled of 2 judges, the police chief, a science officer, a nurse, and various board members to cover every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, from health and safety to legal and financial elements.

New to the practices at the Guild this season are understudies. Historically, actors went on to perform even through illness and injury. Now if an actor is feeling under the weather, they simply cannot take the chance of spreading the coronavirus to others.

Along with having understudies for larger roles, all actors must be vaccinated. Crew members who work backstage also must be vaccinated, and everyone wears masks unless they are actively applying makeup, getting dressed, or on stage.

Directors have had to learn to block scenes and stage interactions differently (as often as is possible) with social distancing in mind. The unique thrust stage has always been an asset to bringing the show as up-close and personal as possible for audiences to enjoy. Now the action will take place at a more “pandemic-friendly” distance.

There are many obstacles in the pathway for RTG’s 84th season, but the biggest one by far is the element of the unknown. Season ticket sales are down due to the uncertainty of the future. If 2020 taught us anything, it taught us that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Season 84 will begin with the nostalgic masterpiece, “A Christmas Story,” directed by Doug Instenes, which opens December 3, 2021. Complete with props like the ones that helped make the movie famous, such as the Leg Lamp that “must be Italian,” Ralphie’s pink bunny pajamas and the Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun, this holiday season opener is sure to remind us all of days gone by; of when times were simpler. Gather the family, don your masks and tickets, and usher in the holiday season with, as Doug puts it, “a good old-fashioned story that so many people love.”

The Complete 84th Season

The season continues with “Nunsense” January 7–23, “Guys on Ice” February 11–27, “Clue: On Stage” March 18–April 3, “Akeelah and the Bee” April 22–24, and “Mamma Mia!” May 20–June 12, 2022.

Visit the Racine Theatre Guild’s website for information on the new season, including the many other productions that happen on the stage, view available classes and more. While you’re there, don’t forget to purchase your tickets for “A Christmas Story,” and the rest of the 84th season.